Wednesday, August 18, 2004

5. What is the point of exclamation?!

For this brief entry, concerning the exclamation mark, I have decided to abandon the use of previously published sources and simply rant for a few paragraphs. The exclamation mark is one that we love, hate, and love to hate. I tend to hate it less than the people who use it unnecessarily, or in inappropriate environments. The question mark is used to give a statement, and even questions, audible emphasis. The exclamation point indicates the sound of someone yelling, or raising his or her voice to an abnormal tone. Much like expletives, it’s generally used more frequently in vernacular environments (like emails or chat rooms). It can also denote false sincerity, fake laughter, and cheesy enthusiasm. This entry will look at the presence of the mark in hallmark cards, emails, dialogue, and academic writing; but first, let us define the exclamation mark’s particular kind of emphasis.

The ! mark has an abrasive effect upon the eyes and the internal ear. It draws attention to the sentence preceding it by raising the authors voice to a yell; therefore, it is an example of “loud” emphasis. The quotation marks just used for the word loud would be an example of “silent” emphasis. Of course, these quotations also emphasize “loud,” and “silent” as terms that will have special definitions within this little essay. This form of emphasis is not only passive, rather than aggressive, it also has a narrow focus: it emphasizes a single word or a short phrase, NOT the entire phrase.

I included examples of using both italicized and uppercase letters to create emphasis in the above paragraph. Italics create silent emphasis, and all-caps (or uppercase words) create loud and aggressive emphasis. I must say that it is painful, and almost inexcusable, to see more than one type of emphasis used in the same sentence. Mixing the aggressive and passive written forms together is equivalent to whispering, and then yelling: it is both confusing and annoying. I committed the crime for instructional purposes only and cannot endorse this kind of writing—-unless, of course, you are emailing the phone company.

With these definitions and comparisons of emphasis in mind, let us examine the areas of writing where the question mark appears most frequently and why:

1. The HallmarkÔ card has to be the most commercial delivery system of the exclamation mark in existence. Happy Birthday Mom! Merry Christmas Jimmy! Happy New Year China! Because holidays are used to emphasize the importance of certain days, it seems to be a requirement to include exclamatory phrases in gift cards. Of course, the cards that say “all of our condolences for your loss,” leave out the exclamation mark to express a more serious and somber tone. Does this mean that the ! is an intrinsically happy mark? No, it can also express anger (shut up!), or terror (oh God, no!). In fact, the question mark has been so abused by companies like Hallmark—or advertisers who label everything as reduced!, or free!—that society has a mostly desensitized and cynical response to any request for excitement made by the exclamation mark. In itself the mark is not justification enough for celebration. Do question marks excite you? They almost never excite me.

2. The proliferation of the exclamation mark has most recently occurred due to electronic communication. The informal and conversational nature of most emails encourages many people to string together multiple phrases ending with exclamation marks:

Hey ___!

What’s up!

I’ve been typing for so long! I want to get up and go for a walk, but…oh my god! I can’t feel my legs!

Help me!


These authors are either too busy, or not creative enough to create emphasis by forming more complex sentences. If all of your sentences are short and choppy, exclamation marks—and other superficial means of highlighting textual phrases (all caps, or *stars*)—are the only available tools. Good old sentence variety opens the door to structural, and grammatical methods of emphasis. See what I mean.

Unfortunately, most people are not interested in either structure or grammar. People who are interested in the details of writing, like academic authors, almost never resort to the use of an exclamation mark for emphasis. This may be out of consideration for their colleagues who spend most of their time using “library voices,” and startle easily; then again, it may be that they are patient.

The ! is like the word “fuck;” it is an emphatic crutch.

Friday, July 09, 2004

4. To Question, or not to Question?

That is the mark. I am not moving through these punctuation marks as quickly as promised. That apostrophe business really took more energy than expected. Therefore, I have chosen the question mark as the next topic in an effort to make a short, yet sweet, entry.

The rule regarding the question mark is simple: if the sentence has a question, then use the mark! The principle seems straightforward enough, but what about rhetorical questions? Some say that a rhetorical question, or most of them, should end with a period; some say that they should not, and some don't care much about these matters. One would go as far as calling the question mark a boring mark. In Gertrude Stein’s opinion, this poor question mark falls into the category of uninteresting punctuation:

"Of these the one but the first and the most the completely most uninteresting is the question mark. The question mark is alright when it is all alone when it is used as a brand on cattle or when it could be used in decoration but connected with writing it is completely entirely completely uninteresting. ... Therefore I never could bring myself to use a question mark, I always found it positively revolting, ... if you do not know that a question is a question what is the use of its being a question."

All of the emphasis and ellipses are mine. It should be obvious that they are not from the original "Poetry and grammar," but with Stein's stylistic experimentation one has to make these things clear. Is the question mark necessary? Was that a question. Was that a mistake. Is this annoying you.

When a question is asked and--the question mark is consciously omitted--the phrase becomes flat. The intonation, that oral lilt, at the end of a phrase is the question mare's raisin deter. I do not find the mark "positively revolting," but it is wrong to always require its placement at the end of a sentence. Any rule of punctuation that unnecessarily restricts written expression should be bent.

While speaking of question mark placement, let us examine the Spanish preference of using two marks instead of one.

¿Do you like this question?


Do you like this question?

I find the Spanish version to be more visually pleasing, but less interesting. Of course, I have not read enough Spanish literature. I cannot positively say that something is lost by immediately being told: this sentence is a question. My gut reaction, however, says that that first mark (¿) ruins the possibility for suspense. It is better to not see the question comming, or to not have the marks there at all, but to have one on either side of the phrase--like bookends--makes me feel claustrophobic. And how can you have an open-ended question when both the back and the front doors are closed?

¿What do you think?

Thursday, July 08, 2004


Open Saturday's what? I don't know, ask Friday. Posted by Hello

Saturday, July 03, 2004

2. Apostrophe Catastrophe

I will never forget Madelein Murphy, my former English English teacher, who wrote in red pen on one of my papers: "this was a brilliant essay, but avoid the terrible error of mistaking 'it's' for 'its,' and may it never darken your prose again!" To make such a simple mistake was embarrassing, but the way she phrased her criticism was so complimentary, and so poetic, that I have always felt closer to the apostrophe.

This little mark has many powers, which will be listed and touched upon individually; however, I must say that my favorite aspect of the apostrophe is its non-judgmental nature. Everyone from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan to the cockneys of London rely upon the apostrophe's power to mark the absent letters and sounds created by accents. Shakespearean English is filled with shortened versions of never (ne'er) and ever (e'er), but contemporary literature favors the phonetic expression of accents over the old-fashioned apostrophe approach. When too many apostrophes are used in one sentence, the damn thing is choppy. When you don't use apostrophes to express an Irish accent (for example), you run the risk of writing like e.e. Cumings. Incidentally, Cummings' poems explore and play with punctuation more than anything else I have ever read.

While the apostrophe is one of the least controversial marks in literature, it is also one of the most versatile and often used. This must be the reason that Lynn Truss dedicates thirty-two pages of her book on punctuation to a discussion of what she calls the "tractable" apostrophe. Thank God for British authors and their taste for unusual adjectives:

\Tract"a*ble\, a. [L. tractabilis, fr, tractare to
draw violently, to handle, treat. See {Treat}, v. t.]
1. Capable of being easily led, taught, or managed; docile;
manageable; governable; as, tractable children; a
tractable learner.

I shall find them tractable enough. --Shak.

2. Capable of being handled; palpable; practicable; feasible;
as, tractable measures. [Obs.] --Holder.
--{Tract"a*ble*ness}, n. -- {Tract"a/bly}, adv.

The above definition is from the 1913 edition of Webster's, but it was easy to find, cut, and paste. The apostrophe, thanks to its eager-to-please and naive nature, is much abused. But first, let's see my summary of Honnold's list of how it should be used:

1. possessive

The possessive is formed by adding 's to a word, unless it's a plural word that ends with s. This 's or s' denotes ownership.

Few people make mistakes when talking about:
Joe's blog,
Bush's failures,
or Janet Jackson's breast.

Many people, however, forget to hang the apostrophe outside the s in the following cases:

ten dollars' worth,
babies' diapers,
the Culpeppers' house,
two weeks' notice.

Here is the extra tricky part: if the plural form of the word does not end with an s the apostrophe goes on the left side. Here are a few examples:

women's movement,
children's imaginations,
deer's droppings.

2. Contractions

Whenever a letter is dropped from a word or between words, this omission is represented by the mighty apostrophe:

ne'er = never
can't = cannot
won't = will not
it's = it is (beware my mistake)

But here are some more interesting examples:

o'clock = of the clock
O'Neill = of Neill
the spit'n image = spit and image

"Oh, look at yew l'ttle Danny! Aren't you tha spit'n image of our postman, Mr. O'Neil."
(so that's where it comes from. Does anyone else see the Freudian imagery in this saying?)

P.S. The apostrophe also indicates the omission of figures in dates:

I was born in '80.

3. Plural

Numbers, symbols, and words used as terms also receive the apostrophe:

The bastard rolled double 6's three times in a row.
This paragraph has too many but's and and's.
I ate eleven hors doeuvre's at the museum's reception that night.

Well, now that is a lot of work for one little, tractable apostrophe to take care of. The poor bastard is overworked and underpaid. He is used for so many shortcuts that the average literate Joe (yes I am talking about myself) does not respect him. You could say that he's underpaid, because he's overworked.

Any punctuation mark that is easily manipulated, or that the general public is not afraid of, falls victim to aesthetic prejudices. The apostrophe is more optional than necessary. It is, therefore, treated like noun and conjunction clothing. Bob Dylan can simply hang it on to the word freewheeling to give his album cover style. "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," is a world apart from "The Freewheeling Bob Dylan." In fact, the apostrophe changes not only the look, and sound of the word, but its definition as well. It's impossible to argue that "Freewheelin'" and "Freewheeling" are the same word; in these instances, the apostrophe acts as a suffix. The adjective "freewheeling" becomes uninhibited and unrestrained by the carefree addition of the apostrophe. The word, like Dylan, is liberated in both meaning and appearance.

The apostrophe is the only punctuation mark that actually becomes part of the word in question. It is attached to truncated adjectives, and verbs like a wooden leg is attached to an amputee's stump--it might not look pretty, but it functions. Sometimes, as in the case of "freewheelin'," the apostrophe enhances both appearance and meaning. Like a prosthetic appendage, it does not only replace a specific part, it changes the overall nature of its host. Commas, periods, interrogation and question marks all affect sentences, but they do not marry themselves to words. The words act indifferently towards these marks, and though they will move to the left or right to make room for a comma (for example)--as you and I would make room for a pedestrian on the sidewalk--they will not embrace that mark like a friend or lover: as they do embrace the apostrophe.

The dash comes closest to the effect of the apostrophe, because it can cut words off: "No, no, don't shoot. I'll give you any--," there was a loud bang. Modern poets and authors use dashes (and other marks) in innovative ways, but the apostrophe has the most celebrated usage of this kind and should be given some kind of lifetime achievement award at the next--what--Grammies? I whish that I could erase that joke, but I cannot.

You know, at the beginning of this project I had little to no feeling about the apostrophe; nevertheless, I feel myself becoming more attached to it. On the other hand, I will never enjoy the blatant overuse of the apostrophe typified by Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson:

"Oh, yes, you got me, hain't you. 'Clah to goodness if dat conceit o' yo'n strikes in, Jasper, it gwyne to kill you, sho'. If you b'longed to me I'd sell you down de river 'fo' you git too fur gone. Fust time I runs acrost yo' master, I's gwyne to tell him so."

The slave accent, as presented here, is nearly impossible to read aloud. The apostrophes are so numerous that they disrupt the visual aspect of the sentence and give the false impression of choppy speech. The voice that I hear, when reading this paragraph, is not as smooth or melodic as the one Twain intends to express (I do not, of course, pressume to know what Twain does or does not wish to express--I simply hope that this stylistic choice was an error, or that he was a victim of his literary period). Fortunately, though, modern literature has moved away from that sort of perversion of the tractable apostrophe.

As a conclusion to this discussion, I offer Gertrude Stein's comments about the apostrophe:

One other little punctuation mark one can have feelings about and that is the apostrophe for possession. Well feel as you like about that, I can see and I do see that for many that for some the possessive case apostrophe has a gentle tender insinuation that makes it very difficult to definitely decide to do without it. ... I absolutely do not like it all alone when it is outside the word when the word is a plural, no then positively and definitely no, I do not like it and in leaving it out I feel no regret, there it is unnecessary and not ornamental but inside a word and its s well perhaps, perhaps it does appeal by its weakness to your weakness.
("Poetry and Grammar")

Well, Stein and Truss both characterize the apostrophe as timid, tender, and malleable. I say that the apostrophe is unassuming, naive, and downright gullible; so am I, however, and I must admit that the apostrophe's weakness does appeal to my own.

Friday, July 02, 2004

1. Au Lecteur:

Welcome, dear reader, to my little, virtual soapbox. Finally I have a platform to espouse my crackpot philosophies. On second thought, this blog of mine ought to have more structure. Yes, my vague statements and philosophical ramblings will be saved for late evenings and my long-suffering friends. What I need to make this blog thing work is a project. I have already chosen this blog's initial purpose in life; but first, I must make a confession.

I am an academic fraud! Are you shocked? Are you dismayed? Are you completely disappointed that my confession was not of a more criminal or sexual nature? Well, I have had each of these reactions to the terrible news myself; and so, I empathize with all of you--excepting you, of course. You know who you are. But let us, cher lecteur, continue on to the details. I call myself a fraud, because despite my BA in literature and my recent acceptance to an MA program (in comparative literature)--I cannot write! I am, however, talented at training monkeys and Mojoe (one of my most successful students) is faithfully transcribing each word, emphasis, and punctuation point that appears before you. Someday, I hope, Mojoe's services will not be needed and he shall be free to rejoin his spider monkey brethren in the Congo. But first I must master the English language, or at least improve my grammar.

I have a plan. I will use this blog to analyze the function of, and various opinions about, one punctuation mark per entry. There are three texts that will be used to imitate a multiple source approach to this study: English with Ease (a cut-and-dry instruction manual for ESL students), Eats Shoots and Leaves (Britain's current best-seller on punctuation), and "Poetry and Grammar" (an emotional essay concerning the signposts of prose). Respectively, the authors of these works are: Dierdre Honnold, Lynne Truss, and Gertrude Stein. This approach should give me an adequate range of opinions about what should and should not be done with the ;,',",!,?,/,:,;, and the ,. If all goes well with the discussion of English punctuation marks, I will continue the project using Spanish and French punctuation. Oh yes, and there was much rejoicing. I am not especially anal about punctuation, but I would like to know more about it.

All posts concerning the P.P. (punctuation project) will contain the relevant mark in the post title. Therefore, everything should be divided nicely and that minority of my vast readership, which only wants to know what I had to drink last night, may skip the main entries.

With gushing love and adoration,